WASHINGTON, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved pembrolizumab, sold as Keytruda, as a first-line lung cancer treatment alternative to chemotherapy.
The approval comes nearly a year after clinical studies suggested the immunotherapy drug was a more effective method for treating lung cancer than chemotherapy. Former president Jimmy Carter was famously reported to be cancer-free after using the drug.
The FDA's ruling follows extensive evaluation of the drug by scientists from the University of California in Los Angeles. A larger group of patients will now have the option to treat their lung cancer with the drug without having any prior chemotherapy.
"It is exciting to have an expanded group of patients who are now eligible for this drug," UCLA cancer researcher Edward Garon said in a press release. "What is particularly encouraging is that we are now able to select, based on features in the tumor, approximately a quarter of advanced lung cancer patients who can receive immunotherapy as their initial treatment. This will allow them to live longer while delaying, and in some cases potentially avoiding, the side effects of traditional chemotherapy."
Pembrolizumab treats lung cancer by encouraging T cells in the body to recognize and attack cancer cells, effectively using the body's own immune system to fight the disease. Prior to the FDA's recent announcement, the drug's use was restricted to patients who have received chemotherapy and expressed a biomarker known as PD-L1 on at least half of their cancer cells. Patients who meet this same biomarker qualification will be allowed to use Keytruda in place of chemotherapy.
During the study published in The Lancet in December 2015, researchers tested the drug's effectiveness in an experiment involving 1,034 participants. The experimental group was given pembrolizumab, while the control group received the cehmotherapy drug docetaxel. The research team found high doses of the immunotherapy drug proved to be significantly more effective in treating the disease.
With Keytruda being approved for a wider range of patients, medical scientists are now exploring whether or not the drug has similar effects on other forms of cancer.